Academic award frosting for WWCC athletes

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WALLA WALLA — The athletes who inhabit the Walla Walla Community College campus out on Tausick Way always knew they had done their part in the school’s recent academic accomplishments on the national stage.

Now they’ve got something to show for it.

In a brief mid-morning ceremony last week under the Warrior’s Knee in the school’s main building, WWCC athletes were the recipients of the first NWAACC Presidents Cup. Marco Azurdia, the NWAACC’s new executive director, was in town to present the trophy to the Warrior athletes for their achievements in the classroom during the 2012-13 school year.

Walla Walla placed first in the Frank Bosone Division (NWAACC schools that compete in eight or more sports) with a cumulative score of 4.23, which easily outdistanced second-place Clackamas, which finished at 3.50.

In the Dick McClain Division for schools with seven or fewer sports, Big Bend athletes scored 3.97 to finish first, followed by Blue Mountain and Umpqua, each with a 3.50 score.

For WWCC’s athletic department, it was the frosting on the cake after the school had been recognized last spring by the Aspen Institute as the No. 1 community college in the entire nation. Walla Walla, which had finished third in 2011, shared the honor with Santa Barbara City College in California, and they equally shared the $800,000 first prize.

There won’t be any cash payouts for the accomplishments of Warrior athletes, just the traveling trophy, the satisfaction of a job well done and the assurance of a pleased administration that the men and women who elect to play sports at WWCC are keeping their college aspirations in proper perspective.

“This makes me extremely proud,” WWCC president Steve VanAusdle said during the ceremony. “We are the No. 1 student-athletes, and that is very special.

“It reminds us of why we are here,” VanAusdle added. “You all will leave Walla Walla with a great academic experience as well as a great athletic experience.”

“This is what athletics is all about at this level,” added Jeff Reinland, the school’s athletic director and men’s basketball coach. “Lose that focus and we might not have athletics anymore.”

Reinland expanded his thoughts in a brief interview following the ceremony.

“What we are trying to do is give kids the opportunity to get an education and the chance to compete in athletics in the process,” he said. “But academics always comes first in our philosophy.

“For us to get this award is reassurance that we are keeping things in the right perspective. The bottom line is that we want students to do well in the classroom so they can move on to a four-year school, get a degree and be successful in life. But it’s easy to lose that focus.”

Bobbi Hazeltine, WWCC’s women’s commissioner to the NWAACC and the Warriors’ women’s basketball coach, echoed Reinland’s sentiments.

“This is what we are here for more than athletics,” Hazeltine said of the meaning of the Presidents Cup. “That’s what it is all about. Very few, if any, of these athletes will ever play professionally, so you have to get it done in the classroom. This is something to be proud of.

“I am excited that our athletes are more than just athletes. They put a lot of time in the library, in the study skill center, and now they are being recognized for that.”

Although the Presidents Cup awards are designated for athletes, athletic success is not a consideration, Azurdia affirmed. Academic success was the only criteria.

That said, Walla Walla’s athletic programs have enjoyed a long and storied history of achievement that would make any coach or teacher or administrator or NWAACC executive proud.

It all begins in the fall, where WWCC football was once among the dominant programs in the NWAACC until the sport was gradually disbanded one school at a time. Walla Walla was the final holdout, playing its final season in 1997.

Now the autumn belongs to volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer, and all three programs have thrived.

The Warriors won an NWAACC volleyball championship in 2005 and have finished second on three other occasions. Since 2001, the women’s soccer team has claimed three NWAACC championships and finished second five times. And during that same period of time, the men’s soccer team won a title in 2008 and finished second three times.

The winter belongs to basketball, and the WWCC men’s and women’s teams are familiar faces at the NWAACC Championships.

Walla Walla’s men’s basketball success dates back to 1971, when the Warriors finished second in the tournament. The Warriors won back-to-back NWAACC titles in 1978-79 and finished second again in 1982. In Reinland’s 19 seasons at the helm, the Warriors have played in 11 NWAACC Championships and reached the final four three times.

Hazeltine’s women’s team claimed the school’s first NWAACC title in 2001, her second year on the job, and the Warriors repeated as NWAACC champs in 2010. Walla Walla has also finished second three times, dating back to 1981, and Hazeltine has taken her teams to the tournament 13 consecutive years and placed in 12 of them.

WWCC baseball teams placed second at the NWAACCs in 1990 and 1994, and Warriors softball teams were second in 2009 and 3rd in 2005, the closest either program has come to an NWAACC crown.

But Dave Meliah’s baseball program has appeared in four consecutive Eastern Region playoffs and finished second in the region the last two years while winning 59 games combined. And Mike Staudenmaier’s softball squad has trekked to eight tournaments in his 14 seasons, and the Warriors won a school-record 41 games in 2008 when they finished fourth at the NWAACC.

Men’s and women’s golf and rodeo, which compete in split fall/spring seasons, round out the Warriors’ proud championship trail.

The men’s golf team won five NWAACC championships in a span of six years, beginning in 2003, and finished second the one time it didn’t win it all. The women’s team placed second at the NWAACC in three consecutive years beginning in 2002.

The WWCC rodeo teams have been dominated not only in the Northwest Regional but on the national level as well.

The men’s team has placed in the top 10 nationally 10 times since 1990, including national championships in 2008 and 2012, and it added a second-place finish in 2002. The women’s team captured a national championship in 1992 after placing second in 1991, and the Warriors have finished in the top 10 nationally seven times since 1990.

All of this and brains, too.

Remarkable.

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